Rainforest Caves in the Land of Pounamu


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Oceania » New Zealand » South Island » West Coast
November 5th 2005
Published: December 9th 2005EDIT THIS ENTRY

The Nile River ValleyThe Nile River ValleyThe Nile River Valley

The limestone cliffs and dense rainforest in the Nile River valley make the scenery very impressive.
NOTE: I have been a bad blogger! I have let my blog get out of date, but the next few blogs should bring everyone up to date and bring an end to my journey through New Zealand and back to America.

I last left you in Hamner Springs on my way to Westport. Westport was not originally one of my planned destinations, but, short of backtracking to Christchurch, which I didn't want to do, Westport was the only city remotely close to where I wanted to go that I could get to from Hamner Springs - Small changes in plans (or I suppose the complete lacking of firm plans in the first place) is one of the things that makes traveling so much fun for me. Catching the bus to Westport proved to be an adventure in its self - I had to be dropped off on the side of the road about a ten-minute taxi ride outside of Hamner Springs at the Hamner turn-off, because few buses actually go into town due to its remoteness. It was a little strange being dropped off on the side of the road several hours walk from town, but the scenery was great
On the Side of the RoadOn the Side of the RoadOn the Side of the Road

My side of the road bus-stop at the Hamner turnoff was strange, but with views like this I couldn't complain.
and the shuttle showed up on time and I was off. Our route took us over Lewis Pass, which was only mildly impressive as far as mountain passes go, and into Westport. Along the way I had a conversation with a lady from England who had traveled to New Zealand on an ocean going steamer in her youth, before planes were an affordable means of transportation, and had been there ever since. It is amazing how much the world has changed in one lifetime - What once required a lengthy voyage on a steam ship can now be done in half a day on a plane. When I arrived in Westport I got a room at the local hostel and made reservations for a black-water rafting trip for the following day. For dinner that night I went all out and made an excellent curry dish, which drew the envious looks of several microwave chefs and tasted great.

I awoke to rain the following morning, which is not unusual for the West Coast of New Zealand, but it didn't matter because the day's festivities would be taking place underground. My ride picked me up shortly after breakfast and I was
The War MemorialThe War MemorialThe War Memorial

This is a statue at the war memorial in Westport.
off to Charleston Caverns and the Nile River Valley. Charleston Caverns are located in, as the name suggests, Charleston, which, according to my guide, was the largest town in New Zealand during the gold rush in the 1860's and actually was one of the towns considered for the location of the capital - Auckland won and now the once great Charleston is a barely noticeable little town on the main west coast highway between Westport and Greymouth. We met the other two people going on the trip in Charleston and, after a few minutes of gathering our gear and taking care of the requisite paperwork, we were on our way to the caves. We passed through the old gold works and, though nature is doing a good job at reclaiming the land, it was still easy to see the mark of man, but only because our guide pointed it out. The scenery soon changed from rolling hills and grassy fields to a rainforest covered valley with sheer, limestone cliffs and a multitude of hidden caves, many unexplored. A short drive later we entered the national park and pulled up to the rainforest train, which was a small hand made train
Into the UnderworldInto the UnderworldInto the Underworld

The Nile River carved these cliffs and all of the caverns in them. This is where we caught the Rainforest Train.
that ran on a very narrow gage track. The rainforest train shortened an otherwise long walk to the entrance of the caves and it was an enjoyable ride through the forests of the amazingly scenic Nile River Valley - We passed through dense, green jungle foliage along the river with occasional breaks in the forest allowing spectacular views of the sheer limestone cliffs that line the valley and the rushing water that carved it out. At the end of the train journey we got dressed in our wetsuits and started walking into the jungle. We stopped at a small side trail to get our tubes and then we crossed a swing bridge over the Nile River. After our guide pointed out a native orchid that was growing along the trail we started climbing the steps and switchbacks that lead us to the entrance of the cave. After another discussion on the fragile environment in the cave we entered the underworld. Inside the cavern we walked past several stalactites and stalagmites as we descended deeper into the earth. At one point we stopped to examine a moa bone in the dirt - Moas were one of the largest birds in the
Limestone and SheepLimestone and SheepLimestone and Sheep

Another view of the valley.
world and lived in New Zealand until about two hundred years ago when they were hunted to extinction. A little further on we passed a set of dog footprints in the sand that had been there for nearly fifty years, which showed us how delicate a cave ecosystem is and how lasting even the simplest of footprints can be. We dropped down to a lower level in the cave and we were greeted by more amazing formations. At one place the stalactites and stalagmites projected from the roof and floor of the cavern and had the appearance of a snaggle-toothed jaw of some giant, forgotten monster, waiting for Father Time and Mother Nature to free it from its stony prison to again terrorize the earth. We descended deeper into the cave passing rooms with amazing acoustics, where we tried our hand at yodeling, and finally made our way passed several large logs and branches, which were washed into the cavern by floods, to the water and the rafting portion of our trip. There we learned about the glow-worms, which are actually maggots of a type of fly (it would be difficult to sell trips to see Glow Maggots), and we
The View from the TrainThe View from the TrainThe View from the Train

I know, too many pictures of the same thing.
examined several of them with their long strands of web hanging from the ceiling to snare unsuspecting insects. Each of us in turn entered the water and got into our tubes - The water was cold despite the wetsuits we were wearing, but we soon forgot about any discomfort. We linked our tubes together and turned off our lights as our guide paddled us through the glow-worm grotto. At first it was very dark, but slowly the cavern began to show shadows cast by a surreal, soft blue light and then the glow-worms appeared in great numbers. There were thousands of the little glow-worms and the light emanating from their tail illuminated the cavern and reflected off of the water creating an amazing scene that reminded me of the night in Antarctica on the Castle Rock Loop during the darkest part of winter when the auroras cast the landscape in blue-green light and set the ice aglow. The roof of the cave gave the appearance of passing under the Milky Way with thousands of stars overhead. As the spectacle passed above us the light started to change and, as we went around a corner in the passage, sunlight poured into
A Window in the RainforestA Window in the RainforestA Window in the Rainforest

Our guide slowed the train here and told us to get ready for a nice view up a side valley.
the cave and the glow-worms were gone. We reached a gravel bar and had to walk to the other side and then we were afloat again. After a short paddle we came to the opening of the cave and an amazing site - The roof of the cavern disappeared, but the shear walls stayed and several boulders and fallen trees, all covered in jungle growth and bathed in an amazing, steamy, pre-noon light, blocked our path and our black-water rafting came to an end in a small rainforest pool. We walked a short way down a stream that poured out of the pool and came to the Nile River and our final float of the day - This time in white-water! We were reminded to keep our backsides up above the bottom of the tubes while we went over the rapids (failure to do so resulted in repeated spankings from the rocks, which I experienced more than once!) and we were off. The rapids proved to be quite tame, but it was still an enjoyable ride and when we reached our pullout point at the swing bridge I jumped off of the tube into deep water for a final swim
On the TracksOn the TracksOn the Tracks

After making some minor repairs to the train, we backed it all the way to the station.
to the beach. The return journey was fairly uneventful and by early afternoon I was back at the hostel in Westport. I spent the rest of the day walking around town and eventually found my way to the beach and my first view of the Tasman Sea. The driftwood strewn beach was a few miles out of town and, as I stood on the beach, the rain that had stopped while we were in the cave came back in full force and I was quickly soaked. I didn't let the rain dampen my spirits and I continued my exploration of the town - I walked passed horse stables and fish-packing plants and a port with a few boats and finally made my way back to main street, where I spent a few hours walking through the shops before I went back to the hostel to dry off. The following morning I was off to Hokitika - The jade capital of New Zealand.

The ride to Hokitika took us along a rugged coast line past the Punakaiki rocks (pancake rocks) which are strange rock formations on the coast - My only view of these rocks was unfortunately from the road,
The Lost WorldThe Lost WorldThe Lost World

Can you tell I liked the cliffs?
but it was still neat to see them. The rocks were from the same formation that the limestone caves in Charleston are in. The features are formed by alternating layers of limestone and a softer dark layer, which were layed down by alternating ice ages that occurred about every twenty thousand years or so, that erode at different rates and give the appearance of a stack of pancakes - There are other theories about how the layers were formed of course, but this is what my guide at the caves told me and it made sense. We made it to Hokitika late in the day and I got a bed at the Just Jade Experience hostel, which is a very comfortable place with a coal fired fireplace and a 'No Shoes' policy that is right on the beach and is run by a master jade carver who also does jade carving workshops on site - I was there to learn how jade is carved and to try my hand at working with the famous greenstone of New Zealand.

Jade, which is also known as nephrite, greenstone or by its Maori name pounamu, is famous in New Zealand and is
The Rainforest TrainThe Rainforest TrainThe Rainforest Train

This train was hand made for the purpose of taking people to the cave entrance. It was a fun ride through the forest.
found in great quantities along the west coast especially in Hokitika. Pounamu was very importaint to the Maoris and there are several traditional Maori designs that are still popular today. The Just Jade Experience allows you to have hands on experience working jade and also allows you to design your own piece. For my design, I decided to make a traditional fishhook, but I changed it a bit to give it the appearance of a sea monster - Gordon, the owner of the place, laughed and said it looked like a chicken, but in the end he helped me make my sea-chicken fish hook into a jade creation I could be proud of. Once I was happy with my design, Gordon chose a piece of jade that would best match the design, from several slices he had in the shop. Next he drew the design on the stone and cut the basic shape out with a diamond saw. After that, he shaped the stone on a diamond grinding wheel and did the final detail work with a small rotary grinder - It was amazing how quickly the carving took shape and it was a lot of fun watching a master
The Master at WorkThe Master at WorkThe Master at Work

My jade carving starting to take shape at the Just Jade Experience.
carver at work. Gordon does all of the stone carving himself, so you can learn how it is all done while ensuring you will have a quality carving in the end - It also ensures that the potentially dangerous tools are kept in the hands of an experienced carver. When the design was completely carved he took me into the main dining room of the hostel and set me up with the first of the many items I would use to polish the carving - An abrasive sanding block. After about half an hour of painstakingly smoothing all of the tooling marks left by the diamond cutters, Gordon came out to set up his next customer, another American, with the sanding block and to check my progress - It was time for me to move to the first of six different pieces of sand paper. The wet sanding (sanding with water) process went on for hours with occasional visits from Gordon to check our progress and move us along to the next piece of sandpaper. In the end we had polished the jade to the best of our abilities (the last piece of sand paper was used without water and
The Coast of HokitikaThe Coast of HokitikaThe Coast of Hokitika

This was the view from the backyard of the hostel in Hokitika.
it really brought out the shine) and we went back into the shop and watched as Gordon put the final touches on our creations with the buffing wheel. Finally, Gordon tied a string to the carvings (they are normally worn around the neck) and he presented us with our creations and our time as jade workers came to an end - It was an excellent experience that I would recommend to any one.

I spent my final night in Hokitika walking around town and watching the sunset on the beach. The following morning I woke up early to catch the shuttle to my next destination - Franz Josef Glacier. Gordon and another person working at the hostel waited outside with me until my shuttle came and we said our good-byes and I was off, headed south along the West Coast.





Additional photos below
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Sunset on the Tasman SeaSunset on the Tasman Sea
Sunset on the Tasman Sea

One of the best sunsets I got to see in New Zealand.
Downtown HokitikaDowntown Hokitika
Downtown Hokitika

The town of Hokitika is the main worker of the greenstone in NZ and is full of jade shops.
Road Block!Road Block!
Road Block!

A standard road block on the West Coast highway.


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